Apostrophes: Flowers or Weeds?
We (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.
Apostrophes: Flowers or Weeds?
Oh, those pesky apostrophes. We use them in contractions. We use them in possessives. They’re easily (and often) muddled.
The Grammar Patrol loves Frazz, the erudite cartoon strip by the Jef Mallett. In one, a student tells Frazz, the school custodian, “Violets are like flowers in the right place, and weeds in the wrong place. Like apostrophes!”
Take this sign: “Bouquet’s $7” sign. That apostrophe is a weed for sure.
The same goes for the mailbox that says “The Smith’s.” That’s two bloopers in just one sign. First, “Smith” is singular. “Smiths” is plural—more than one Smith lives there. An apostrophe added correctly (as in “The Smiths’ ”) shows possession. But why use the possessive? The Smiths’ what? The Smiths’ mailbox? Keep it simple. The sign should read “The Smiths” as in “the Smiths live here.”
* Apostrophes in Possessives
When Edith was in eighth grade, she was clueless about where to put apostrophes to show ownership. By guessing, she was right about 50% of the time.
That’s when Miss Hoezel, her English teacher, donned her blue grammar cape and flew to the rescue. As the Grammar Patrol, we’ve used her clever trick many times when teaching grammar basics. We call it the arrow method.
Here’s the key: To use apostrophes correctly, first be able to identify if a word is singular or plural, then place the apostrophe.
Miss Hoezel’s Arrow Method:
1. Draw a line under the word you want to make possessive.
If there’s one cat and one dish, underline the word “cat.”
If there are several cats and dishes, underline the word “cats.”
2. Where the line ends, draw an “up” arrow.
3. Make an apostrophe at the tip of the arrow!
(Add s to singular words.)
You can also name the apostrophe. Call it “OF.”
The dish OF the cat. The dishes OF the cat. Wherever you say “of” is where the possessive apostrophe goes.
Now it’s your turn. Give the Arrow Method a try.
Where would the possessive apostrophe go?
1. the wheels of the wagons: wagons wheels
2. the feather of the hat: hats feather
3. the votes of the alumni: alumnis votes
4. the van of the Albertsons: the Albertsons van
5. the tail of the lizard: lizards tail
6. the hair spikes of the teen: the teens hair spikes
* Apostrophes in Contractions
Contractions use an apostrophe to shorten a subject-verb form.
“Do not erase that board” becomes “Don’t erase that board.”
The apostrophe replaces the o in not.
TIP: it’s versus its:
It’s is the contraction of “it is.” One of our students gave us this great mnemonic: “Possessive its never splits.” A dog wags its tail, (never it’s tail—that means it is tail”). The tail belongs to the dog. Think ownership. No weedy apostrophe, please.
Arrow Method Answers
1. wagons’ wheels
2. hat’s feather
3. alumni’s votes
4. the Albertsons’ van
5. lizard’s tail
6. teen’s hair spikes
We send huge bouquets your way for using the possessive properly. We’d never send you weedy bouquet’s! Do post more egregious apostrophe bloopers. We love hearing from you.